This semester, I started teaching a ‘special topics’ class in biological anthropology related to human mating. Special topics classes can shift subject matter from semester to semester, depending on the instructor, but I decided to try to put together some of what I learned from the “Humans Are Blank-ogamous” series into a classroom setting.
The two books I decided to use are “Evolution and Human Sexual Behavior by Peter Gray and Justin Garcia and William Jankowiak’s edited book “Intimacies: Love and Sex Across Cultures”. We’ll also read a number of articles by authors from a range of perspectives and disciplines. The thinking is that different authors each have a piece of the puzzle, akin to the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Our goal is to try to describe the elephant.
I think the two books are excellent and complement each other well. Both are university press books, and carry that needed sense of academic gravitas when teaching such a topic. Peter and Justin both share a similar intellectual tradition as me, coming from a biological anthropology perspective (and Justin and I share Binghamton as our alma mater). I think their book resonates strongly with me for that reason, and for their breadth of knowledge. And Jankowiak’s book takes a different approach, surveying sex and love in several cultures, with input from several ethnographers. Although I’m a biological anthropologist, I also have an appreciation for the insights cultural anthropologists bring to the table. And they are so necessary. After all, we are an evolved species, but we are also cultural animals as well.
So, why this class? A friend once suggested to me that I seem to have an affection for ‘wicked problems‘ because I’ve done research or taught classes on complex phenomena like war and health; growth, nutrition and obesity; human variation; and now human mating. I think the challenge of a puzzle is appealing, and, even though it may seem like these topics are spread a bit thin and may lack coherence among them, I see them all as reflecting important parts of what it means to be human: love and war, cooperation and conflict, nature and nurture, evolution and culture, order and chaos.
However, this particular class is slightly different. I’ve dealt with controversial topics before (try teaching evolution to students who think it is literally the work of the devil), but there’s also something a bit uneasy about a class on human mating. The topics of sex and love are often moralized and surrounded by cultural taboos. Therefore, as academic topics they are still stigmatized. Yet, as Tim Urban put it, this is one of the most important parts of life but we are not encouraged to think too much about them, instead leaving ourselves to follow fate, romance, and cultural norms without much guidance or analysis. I’m not promising students too much, or that this class will have “the answer” (I don’t think there is a single answer). Instead, it’s merely an attempt to take an unwieldy subject and find some patterns.
We’ll see how this plays out. If it goes well, it may become a permanent class. If it’s a disaster, then…